Debunking the Calvin Johnson combine 40-yard dash myth years later (Shutdown Corner)

INDIANAPOLIS — Is it possible that we’ve had one of the more legendary NFL scouting combine stories wrong all these years? As Detroit Lions receiver Calvin Johnson ponders retirement, and with the 2016 combine in full swing and the testing set to begin, we often remember fondly one of the best one-off performances of pre-draft yore: Johnson deciding last minute to run the 40-yard dash after initially saying he wouldn’t work out, borrowing track shoes from another player and then blazing a 4.35-second time at 239 pounds. Except that’s not how it happened. Nine years later, the truth comes out. We’ve had the story backward, it turns out. [ Follow Yahoo Sports draft expert Eric Edholm on Facebook and Twitter ] Shutdown Corner tracked down James Pinkney, the former East Carolina quarterback, with whom Johnson reportedly swapped shoes. But Pinkney, reached by phone in Florida Thursday night, says it was Johnson who lent him the shoes — not the other way around. “Calvin let me use his shoes,” Pinkney said. “No one ever has called to ask me the real story, all these years.” Johnson met with the media that week and said he wasn’t planning to work out, by advice given to him from his representatives. But Pinkney said Johnson brought his track shoes and was prepared to run the 40, even if no one knew it. “The only thing Calvin was coming to do was run the 40. Everyone had seen him catch everything else,” Pinkney said. Quarterbacks and wide receivers ran on the same day back in 2007, and Johnson had seen Pinkney, a 34-game starter for the Pirates, struggle a bit with his 40-yard dash. That’s when the All-America receiver — who had never met Pinkney before — came over to help. “So I was in some turf shoes and I had some Reeboks — the Michael Vicks, that’s what I had at that time,” Pinkney said. “After I ran my first 40, he was like, ‘Yo, man, I see what you’re running in. Here, use my shoes.’” And for almost a decade, the myth had been that Johnson ran his 40 in borrowed shoes. Pinkney said that only a few close friends and family have known the truth and that they’ve given him a hard time about it here and there. But it’s Pinkney’s belief that Johnson’s legend shouldn’t take a hit for his combine performance. If anything, it should be even greater in his mind for how helpful Johnson was to a little-known QB prospect he’d never met. “I didn’t know Calvin,” Pinkney said. “For somebody like Calvin Johnson to come up to me and do that, I just felt like he was a normal person to me. “I didn’t have the low-top cleats, but he did. All anybody saw [on TV] was us exchanging cleats. Only my close family really knows the true story. We joke about it all the time.” Pinkney instantly became a Johnson fan and followed his career. While Johnson embarked on what could be a Hall of Fame career, Pinkney’s struggled to get off the ground. He had a so-so combine, weighing in as the lightest quarterback in Indianapolis, and was plagued, he said, by off-field incidents. Pinkney never really got a chance to play in the NFL, instead being diverted to a few years in the Canadian Football League and the Arena Football League. Pinkney never ran into Johnson again. “Of course, I have followed him,” Pinkney said. “I’ve followed him his whole career every step of the way. For that simple fact: He didn’t have to come up to me and offer me his cleats. To me that just shows the kind of person he is, and it shows in his play. “That’s all it took. Other guys saw what I was running in, and none of them said or did anything. But this man of his magnitude, he helped me out and that meant a lot.” Pinkney now is a high school football coach in Delray Beach, Florida and runs his Pinkney QB Academy in Boca Raton, Fla., coaching up some good college players and NFL hopefuls over the past few years. He says he tries to help young quarterbacks with their skills but also to teach them lessons he learned the hard way. “My biggest thing is giving back to the youth,” he said. “Give them something I didn’t have playing the position, especially in south Florida. Some kids don’t get the proper quarterback training down here. They’re athletes playing the position, and when they go to college they’re overwhelmed. “I like to talk to them and give them the insight, to not make the mistakes I did. A lot of players make mistakes and can’t recover from them.” Pinkney wouldn’t reveal specifically what problems he had off the field but said that he thinks he still would be in the NFL today had he avoided trouble nine years ago. “Off-the-field stuff I should have been able to put down, and I didn’t,” he said. “You can get away with some things for so long, you think you’re untouchable. I was naïve about it.” “I definitely feel that if I had taken care of business on my end, I would be still in the NFL now. If not as a starter, then as a backup, helping someone’s team.” Pinkney is reminded of the Johnson story when he sees combine highlights around this time every year. And now people know how it really went down. “You’re the first person ever to get the story right,” he said. “I think people should know what a good man I think he is for that [gesture].” The legend had changed, but it turns out that the story might even have gotten better. – – – – – – – Eric Edholm is a writer for Shutdown Corner on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at edholm@yahoo-inc.com or follow him on Twitter! Follow @Eric_Edholm

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